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Hallo again to all.

So our John Henry Newman is on his way to being a saint. Well, we Anglicans thought quite highly of him and gladly applaud the recognition of a fine mind, spirit, and heart by our friends in the Roman Catholic communion. But what a process that dear dead man must go through.

In the first centuries of the early church, the question of 'Who's a Saint?' was easily decided. Martyrs — those witnessing to Christ by their death — were clear candidates. Full stop, more or less. There was some scrutiny into the life (and death) of the nominee, but generally the approval of the local bishop was all that was required. But after a time, people who led exemplary lives and died in their beds, rather than on a cross or in the coliseum, seemed worthy of recognition, too. Such people began to be included on the roster of saints, again with some degree of investigation and the approval of the bishop. The American cliché 'All politics is local' was true of the early church: saints were local guys and gals who made good. It was only the rare person whose fame spread throughout Christendom.

After the Great Schism (a show of hands if you can recall the matter which first divided the universal Church in 1054) the Western church began to pile on the authority. Not surprisingly, it was the pope who became the gatekeeper of the saints. But if a pope was one way of controlling the roster, surely a committee was even better. So in 1588 the Sacred Congregation for Rites was formed to oversee the process, with the pope retaining a sort of titular authority.

The SCR stayed on top of the job until 1969, when it was split into two. The Saints Group (we shan't bother about what the first half was up to) then took on three tasks: the judicial; the prosecutorial, by means of a 'Promoter General of the Faith', a prosecutor appointed to find holes in the case; and the historical-juridical, a review of earlier decretals and bulls about how sainthood was 'done'. In 1983, John Paul II added yet another body — the College of Relators (we trust it makes more sense in Latin or Italian) — to the procedure. A putative saint in the Roman Catholic Church must now work his or her way through an elaborate steeplechase of Servant of God → Venerable → Blessed → Saint.

Documented miracles are the largest part of this point-to-point. Those are examined in something very like a court of law: there are eyewitnesses, 'clinical and instrumental' documentation, supplementary documentation (rather like amici curiae), and a determination of which degree of miracle is being considered. Presumably sainthood in the first degree — resurrection from the dead  (quoad substantiam) — isn't too much in evidence. The second involves, one wonders how to put this delicately, the wholesale reconstitution of vital organs in an incurably ill person. The third is the recovery of a person 'instantaneously' from an illness that would normally require months or years. Cardinal Newman is being advanced on the basis of this third degree of miracle. Whew. Needless to say, this isn't, well, Anglican.

The Books of Common Prayer in the Anglican Communion have retained ancient saints whose lives and deaths were celebrated in the early Church. We've kept some saints that the Roman Catholic Church has excised. Each national church (excuse the questionable terminology, but it's a convenient shorthand) has tended to include on its calendar men and women whose lives and sanctity may not be known much beyond its borders, with the approval of its bishops, synods, conventions, councils, and the like. If that process seems a little too vague, the Lambeth Conference of 1958 issued some guidelines:I Sing a Song of the Saints of God

Heroes of the Christian Church in the Anglican Communion

The Conference is of the opinion that the following principles should guide the selection of saints and heroes for commemoration:

(a) In the case of scriptural saints, care should be taken to commemorate men or women in terms which are in strict accord with the facts made known in Holy Scripture.

(b) In the case of other names, the Kalendar should be limited to those whose historical character and devotion are beyond doubt.

(c) In the choice of new names economy should be observed and controversial names should not be inserted until they can be seen in the perspective of history.

(d) The addition of a new name should normally result from a wide-spread desire expressed in the region concerned over a reasonable period of time.

Spare and sensible, it seems to us. It allows what might be called a wide latitude for inclusion; for instance, the proposed lengthy calendar of people to be 'venerated' in the American church has caused a degree of uproar, with claims that some have little or no connection to the Anglican Communion. But surely this is a matter for the Episcopal Church to work out; having, say, Rowan Williams weigh in on the matter — or some inter-Anglican committee with proportional representation from around the communion — strikes us as unappealing.

So here we are with our simply and sometimes woolly Anglican way of honouring 'heroes', with no complex legislative procedure, no juridical bodies, no involved sequence of steps. In fact, it's rather like what we've thought of as the Anglican Communion. We'll take it.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 19 September 2010


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